cognitive decline

Changes in cognitive function, such as slowed speed of information processing, are common in normal aging. However, there is considerable variation among individuals, and cognitive decline is not inevitable. In fact, many older adults appear to avoid cognitive decline into their ninth decade of life, and some even beyond. The best news of all is that some risk factors for cognitive decline are potentially manageable, according to recent research.

Cognition is a combination of skills including:

  • attention
  • learning
  • memory
  • language and speech
  • fine motor skills
  • visuospatial orientation
  • executive functions, such as goal-setting
  • planning
  • judgment

Slowed speed of information processing, which may cause other deficits in cognitive functioning, is a hallmark of normal aging. Structural changes in the brain are associated with cognitive decline in apparently normal aging; however, the cause of these changes remains unknown. Three types of cognitive decline with aging have been recognized:

  • Age-associated Memory Impairment (AAMI)
    • mild memory impairment that can occur with normal aging but cannot be detected with objective psychometric testing for the person’s age group
  • Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
    • mild memory loss that can be detected with objective psychometric testing for the person’s age group
  • Dementia (includes Alzheimer’s disease)
    • chronic, progressive, irreversible, global cognitive impairment and memory loss that are severe enough to affect daily functioning

Good News About the Aging Brain

According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, as you age, your brain remains capable of adapting to stimuli. Although declines occur in certain cognitive functions, other cognitive functions increase with age and can compensate for the functions that may decline. Research has found that people who age with greater stores of knowledge may show increased adaptation. Vocabulary also tends to improve with age. Certain activities can assist older adults in increasing their capacity to learn and adapt as they age.

Risk Factors for Cognitive Decline

A number of research studies have identified common, potentially modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline. These risk factors include:

  • lack of mental activity
  • substance use and abuse, including: Smoking
  • illicit drugs
  • alcohol
  • lack of physical exercise
  • malnutrition
  • stress
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • high cholesterol and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • depression
  • multiple medications
  • impairment in vision and hearing
  • head trauma
  • sleep disorders
  • lack of involvement in social activities

Tips to reduce cognitive decline:

  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet that has more vegetables and fruits
  • Get enough sleep
    • Chronic sleep problems like insomnia and sleep apnea can cause problems with memory and thinking
  • Take care of your mental health
    • A history of depression has been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline. Seek medical treatment or a support group if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns.